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Western Marxism: Issues in research and teaching in Vietnam today

(LLCT)The term “Western Marxism” was first used by Soviet Communists when they criticized the return to Hegel and primary schools of Marxism in Western Europe. During the decades of the early twentieth century, this term was soon accepted by such ideologists as Georg Lukacs and Karl Korsch to describe a more independent Marxism than the Marxism of the Second and Third International.


Western Marxism is often identified with “New Marxism” or the so-called Neo Marxism. Its ideologists opposed capitalism on one hand, and rejected Stalinism and Soviet-oriented socialism on the other. They developed Marxist theories and philosophies in their own way and separated themselves from international communists and other working class movements.

In the course of this article, we would like to introduce the basic content and main schools thought pertaining to this ideology, and also address several issues related to its research and teaching in Vietnam today.

1. Summary of Western Marxism’s currents and schools

a. Founders of Western Marxism

Georg Lukacs (1885-1971), Karl Korsch (1886-1961) and Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) are considered to have founded Western Marxism in the 1920s.

These ideologists rejected the trend of objective explanations - the natural history of dialectic materialism and historical materialism. They did not accept the philosophical standpoints of the Second International, particularly Marxism-Leninism’s philosophical interpretations of the extreme determinism of objective economic rules being synchronous with the natural rules of human thinking and actions in all fields of social life. In other words, they refused economic determinism despite recognizing the fundamental roles of economic factors.

In opposition to economic determinism dignifying the role of historical subject of the proletarian class as in Marx and Engels’s concepts, Lukacs and Korsch considered Marxism as philosophy of practical actions denoting both thought and consciousness.

Unlike classical Marxism that mainly focused on economic, political and historical theories, Lukacs, a leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, focused on cultural phenomena and social theory. Lukacs studied Marxism by using Marxist theory in modes of production, class struggle and capitalism as a basis for analyzing socio-cultural phenomena.

In his work History and Class Consciousness (1923), Lukacs contended that Marx’s approach to holism and the role of economics is a methodological basis for analyzing current capitalist society and presented the communist proletarian class as a force capable of eliminating that social regime. Lukacs accepted the Soviet Marxism theory for a revolution of the working class and the implementation of socialism as solutions to the problems of capitalist society.

One of the most notable points in Georg Lukacs’s philosophical conception is his dialectical approach to society, recognizing dialectics as a thought process and a mode of participating in the reformation of the world while considering the interaction of fundamentally contrary sides as subjective and objective factors, human and object. Despite rejecting dialectics of nature, as conceived by Friedrich Engels, he recognized dialectics in thinking and social fields(1).

Karl Korsch, a German revolutionary ideologist, developed Marxism in Hegel’s spirit. In his work Marxism and Philosophy (1923), Korsch recognized Marxism’s fundamental theory of materialism as an effective tool to criticize bourgeois doctrine and capitalist society, and also to use the force of the proletarian class to transform that society. In his opinion, the unity of theory and practice is the real standard of Marxism, like the unity of thinking and existence in Hegel’s viewpoint. When he recognized Marxism as revolutionary theory for the working class’s movements, Korsch introduced the concept of “practical socialism”. In his work Karl Marx (1938), he contended that Marxism claims to critique historical specification to the capitalist society and provides options for it. He considered the principle of historical specification as a fundamental standard of Marx’s theory.

Antonio Gramsci, a Marxist and a leader of the Italian Communist Party, severely criticized the tight systemization of Soviet philosophy, especially the division of Marxist philosophy into dialectic materialism and historical materialism. He contended that the whole of Marxist philosophy is characterized by social and historical manners where it does not require an axiom of absolute universalism. In his opinion, like other philosophies, Marxist philosophy is part of society, a part of the ideological superstructure in a certain stage of its development.

Different tendencies of Western Marxist thought emerged after World War II with many varieties and schools:

The first tendency favored research with humans as the subject and object, from the philosophical angle, particularly focusing on historical materialism. It was inclined to a return to humanism, or the so-called humanism tendency. The tendency recalled an early Karl Marx and was based on his works in early stages, like the Economic and Philosophical Manuscript of 1844.

The second tendency favored research into society and its structure and development from a specific scientific angle. It was called the scientism tendency of Western Marxism and is based on Marx’s later works(2).

b. Humanism tendency of Western Marxism

The humanism tendency of Western Marxism focused on the human element of philosophy, using philosophical concepts such as human nature and existence, subject, object, reality, deterioration, and elimination of deterioration. It criticized contemporary society for its feuds and anti-humanism actions and for dignifying universal human values while modifying those of individuals. The humanism tendency of Western Marxism also attempted to reconcile Marxism and some other ideologies of Western philosophy in the expectation of supplementing supposed limits of Marxism - Leninism such as dogmatism, anti-humanism, and anti-scientism. However, there remained different forms and approaches within the tendency itself, as follows:

- The Frankfurt School was represented by Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979).  The School focused on the relationship between theories of Hegel, Marx and Freud at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, formed in 1924. These thinkers represented an influential school of Western Marxism, the Critical Theory. The School became popular during the 1960s and 1970s not only in Germany, but also in other countries.

The Frankfurt School’s thinkers asked key questions of mankind: Why do people tend towards new barbarisms of war and Nazism and not their true status? Why have the aspirations of rationalism, freedom and human nature in the enlightenment period become so damaging in the twentieth century with so many contradictions to those initial thoughts?

Horkheimer and Adorno sought to answer these questions based on concepts both inside and outside of Marxist philosophy, attempting to focus primarily on the question of hegemony in a broad sense rather than the question of exploitation in orthodox Marxism. In their opinion, the objectives of Enlightenment philosophy and politics - building a society in conformity with the spirit of rationalism - is inherently a capitalist project that naturally holds extreme aspirations for hegemony over the natural world and other peoples. Horkheimer and Adorno contended that these types of hegemony are strongly connected and they turn rationalism into a tool for conducting irrational things and turn freedom into slavery, which ultimately led to the anti-humanism ideology of Nazism as it attempted to establish absolute totalitarianism hegemony.

In order to end totalitarianism tendencies in society, Adorno suggested a concept of “negative materialism” in which he rejected Hegel’s materialism, especially the syllogism “thesis - antithesis - synthesis”, because with a negation of the negation, synthesis becomes merely an uncertain justification for existence. In his opinion, philosophy is critical to theory, which should elaborate on the ever-lasting negative spirit, negating all self-contained tendencies within a system and transforming it into the world as a tool of human ruling over human. Accordingly, negative materialism combats the ambitions of universal totalitarianism in diagrams and technologies(3).

- Freudo Marxism was a school of thought represented by Wilhel Reich, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. It became popular from the 1930s to 1950s and has now lost its status in Western philosophy. It reconciled Freud’s and Neo-Freudians’ concepts of character with Marxism’s concepts of society. This school attempted to research the deformations of character structure and how to overcome such transformation in the condition of modern industrial society(4).

The founder of Freudo Marxism, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), an Austrian psychologist, attempted to reconcile Marxism’s social philosophy with Freud’s psychoanalysis(5). According to him, the reasons for neurotic symptoms in personal mentality involve the social realm and the restraint of human’s natural inspirations such as love and desire for creation. Freudo Marxism’s theory of deterioration sought to overcome these symptoms and liberate mankind’s inspirations with a sexual revolution. Thus, Reich was the initiator of sexual economic sociology.

Meanwhile, combining Marxism and Neo-Freudian thought, Erich Fromm (1900-1980) raised the idea of humanism psychoanalysis as a means of overcoming deterioration and reaching the right ego instead of virtual existence. And Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), in his work Eros and Civilization, attempted to solve the conflict between individual existence and social existence with the concept of reorganizing human psychophysiology based on “new feeling”(6).

- Phenomenological Marxism was mostly popular in Italy and America with notable figures such as Enzo Paci (1911-1976) and Paul Piccone (1940-2004) who attempted to reconcile concepts of Marxism and Phenomenology, building a set of categories within these styles of thought. Enzo Paci contended that the purpose of history is to overcome “objectification”, using Husserl’s terms and concept of “deterioration” as in Marxism and creating Intersocialism, which theorizes that society is built on mutual relationships of people as subjects or free individuals, who are not subject to factors from outside the social sphere(7).

J.P. Sartre (1905-1980), a French existentialist philosopher, began Existential Marxism in the early 1960s with the objective of combining Marxism and Existentialism, coming to the settlement of existence as human nature and a renewal of young Marx’s philosophical theories. In his late work, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre attempted to reconcile Marx’s historical materialism and theoretical points of existentialist anthropology on the human ability of building nature and creating history(8).

Other varieties of Existential Marxism were also expressed in Merleau Ponty’s (1908-1961) works such as Humanism and Terrorism and Risks of Materialism, as well as in writings of French philosophers in Socialisme Ou Barbarie (Socialism or Barbarism) Magazineand Arguments Magazine. These exemplified the views of French thinkers of the extreme left during the 1960s. Existentialist Marxists primarily focused on topics such as human subjectivism, deterioration, and the recovery of human values. In addition, other forms of Existential Marxism sprang up in works of several philosophers in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Eastern European countries(9).

- Philosophie der Hoffnung (Philosophy of Hope) by Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), a German Marxist, suggested the philosophical ontology of hope. In his opinion discussed in the work “Principles of Hope”, as opposed to philosophical theories before Marxism, which recognized absoluteness by solely studying the past, Marxism is directed towards the future. Calling the Marxist project one of world reformation with “specific utopianism”, Bloch contended that philosophy was designed to describe the world’s movement towards perfection and directed prophecy. In his opinion, denoting knowledge of the future, “hope” is a key existential attribute in the process towards human perfection. He interpreted the principle of hope from the position of realism based on dialectical materialism(10).

- Die Gruppe der Praxis (Group of Practice) was a school of thought represented by Yugoslav marxists such as Gajo Petrovic (1927-1993), Mihailo Markovic (1923-2010) and Svetozar Stojanovic (1931-2010). This school focused on the research of different philosophical issues, especially the concept of reality. Criticizing Leninist reflecting theory as lacking in materialism and fully concerned with the activity aspect of consciousness, the school considered reality to be the foundation of the relationship between subject and object, between human beings and the world. They supported Humanism Marxism while strongly criticizing Stalinism and regarded the thoughts presented in young Marx’s works the correct form of Marxism; they attempted to develop a creative Marxism. This school of thought is no longer in existence.

- The Budapest School was a Marxist trend in Hungary with representatives such as Ferenc Feher, Agnes Heller, and Mihaly Vajda, developed during the 1960s based on Georg Lukacs’s theory presented in History and Class Consciousness. This school focused on the research of dialectics based on the concept of “holism” and supported extreme humanism in order to overcome Stalinism’s “absolute de-humanization”. This school has also ceased to exist.

c. Scientism tendency of Western Marxism

Unlike the humanism tendency of Western Marxism, which attempts to supplement humanism with Marxism - Leninism and considers historical materialism as philosophy, the scientism tendency of Western Marxism desires to supplement scientism and the tight scientific form with historical materialism, considering this union a specific science. A number of schools have been formed under this tendency as follows:

The Structural Marxism School formed by the French theorist Louis Pierre Althusser (1918-1990) and his students. Opposite to humanism Marxism, the school contended that Marxism was a science of studying objective structures and the schools of Humanism Marxism, based as they were on young Marx’s works, were trapped in a pre-scientific humanism ideology. Althusser attempted to liberate Marxism from the vestiges of Hegel and Feuerbach’s theories and ideologies and transform historical materialism into a strict specific science, not philosophy(11).

The Analytical Marxism School was formed in the late 1970s in the United Kingdom and America with Jon Elster and John Roemer among its representatives. They set goals to develop social theory based on modern scientific methods. Analytical Marxism suggested an approaching method to the function and theory of game and logic modalities as a basis for researching motives for human action, building appropriate models and attempting to refine certain categories of historical materialism.

The Methodology of the Italian theorist Galvano Della Volpe and his students. Based on considering methods for settling the relationship between the general and the particular in philosophical history, Galvano Della Volpe raised a tentative conclusion on the incompatibility of philosophical abstraction with specific science. In his opinion, there should be characteristic logic for a characteristic object and the task of philosophy is to research how to uncover these abstractions, how to go from the abstract to the specific and vice versa. And thus, philosophy is converted into methodology.

In summary, if the first generation of Marxists tended to focus on the economic and political fields, the later generations in the twentieth century focused on developing different fields of social life in order to adapt to the epochal changes. They all attempted to use Marx’s theories to clarify economic, political, cultural and social forms in both the past and present, and also to understand their influences and function on social life.

2. Issues raised in the study and teaching of Western Marxism in Vietnam today

In recent decades, due to the influences of Marxist ideas in the Soviet Union, China and other socialist countries during the Cold War, the study and teaching of Western Marxism in Vietnam has been limited. Very few experts and research efforts systematically study this ideological trend of Marxism. Some research studies discuss the revisionism and opportunism of communist movements in order to criticize, refute and completely oppose them instead of studying them in a systematic and scientific way.

In the context of international integration, the understanding of the history behind philosophical movements is extremely important and necessary. In evaluating the current situation and the necessity to study trends of modern Western ideologies, Resolution No.01 dated 28th March 1992 by the Political Bureau (7th tenure) clearly stated: “In past years, the training content for theoretical cadres has been almost exclusively confined to subjects of Marxist - Leninist sciences. The study of other trends and the reception of international scientific achievements has not been appreciated. Consequently, the majority of theoretical cadres lack wide knowledge of humankind’s intellectual treasures, and thus their capacity to develop is limited”.

To overcome the backwardness of the study and the teaching of ideologies -  particularly Western Marxism - in Vietnam today, the following issues should be quickly addressed :

First, there should be in-depth study groups and consultant experts working with research programs at the State level. We should organize a number of large-scaled international conferences on Western Marxism for leading experts and academics of other countries.

Second, regarding awareness, we should overcome the sectarianist and metaphysical approach in studying trends and schools of Marxism, in which complete denial, prejudices, and exclusive truth should be combated. Study should be conducted with the inherited values of Marxist development and with an inquiring spirit. Marxism should be continuously developed, enhanced, and deepened on the basis of the achievements and quintessences of philosophical history in general and Western Marxism in particular. 

Third, investments should be made in the study, translation and publication of works by ideologists of Western Marxism as well as publication of monographs, references and specialized magazines and comparative studies on Western Marxism, analyzing the values and limitations of this approach and schools of this ideological trend.

Fourth, more subjects on Western Marxism should be added to the teaching curriculum of post-graduate students in universities and institutions, as well as that of students attending middle and senior programs at the Party school system. The time spent on the study of Western Marxism within the university curriculum should also be lengthened.



(1), (3) Coreth, Emerich; Ehlen, Peter; Haeffner, Gerd; Ricken, Friedo: Philosophie des 20. Jahrhunderts, Verlag W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart/Berlin/ Koeln, S. 102-105, 111-118.

(2) See: И.Т. Фролов. Введение в философию: учебное пособие для ВУЗовin: society.polbu.ru, according to Academician Frolov, in the 1960s of the XX century, there appeared two similar trends within Marxist - Leninist philosophy in the Soviet Union. He also noted that, in the Western philosophy in the 20th century there also existed two similar trends. The first focusing on the human being includes phenomenology, philosophical anthropology, personalism, existentialism, psychoanalysis, etc. The second focusing on science includes structuralism, positivism, neo-positivism and analytical philosophy, etc.

(4) mirslovarei.com.

(5) See: neuch.ucoz.ru.

(6), (8), (9), (10), (11) See: Huegli, Anton; Luebke, Poul (Hg.): Philosophie im 20. Jahrhundert, Bd 1, Verlag GmbH Reinbek, Hamburg, 1992, S. 497-507, 360-364, 487-492, 339-357, 546-547.

(7) See: mirslovarei.com

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Nguyen Vu Hao

University of Social Sciences and Humanities,

Vietnam National University, Hanoi



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